Michael Fry: World beaters often hail from broken homes
IT’S NOT cash that makes for Olympic gold, but be the proximity of a foe who must be defeated.
The organs of myself that I most often exercise are my brain, my tongue and my stomach. I think a lot, I talk a lot and I eat a lot. This seems to me quite enough exercise to be getting on with, and I have no desire to extend my corporeal exertion to the quadriceps femoris or the biceps brachii, let alone to the pectoralis major or the rectus abdominus.
In other words, the bits of my body which I employ to the greatest extent are quite different from those used by somebody taking part in, say, the Olympic Games. But is this not my human right?
Well, you wouldn’t think so. To the lengthening list of innocent pleasures that are banned nowadays, or that politicians want to ban, we have on the other side of the account to add the occasions for compulsory jollity that those same politicians, or their hangers-on in the media and elsewhere, hasten to impose on us. The jubilee was bad enough for one year, but now there are the Olympic Games.
It is not exactly as if I cannot welcome the fact that the United Kingdom has so far won more medals than all except two of the other countries taking part in the Games – and more than it has won in any other Games since the first ones to be held in London in 1908, so they keep telling us. It is just that I wonder (here comes a little bit of exercise for the brain) whether that fact will turn out to be of the slightest significance beyond the end of this week.
There is nothing in the least unusual in the Olympic host nation doing rather well. The reason seems obvious. A home crowd is present in the stadium to give the athletes that little extra boost to their performance. This may not be so hugely important to somebody like Andy Murray, who is in the limelight the whole time and besides needs to fight his own inner demons almost more than he fights any opponent (he is a Scot, after all). But should your sport be, say, the canoe slalom, you will never have competed in front of thousands of your cheering fellow countrymen. If you cannot win in those circumstances, you never will – congratulations to Tim Baillie and Etienne Stott all the same.
Exactly the same effect could be observed when the Games were held in Beijing four years ago. Who, up to that point, had thought of the Chinese as being an athletic nation? On the contrary, if I may dare to mention a deplorable racist stereotype that only an ageing reactionary like me would recall, everybody in the West had rather pictured them as being small and weedy. Would anyone ever have believed they could win contests in boxing or weightlifting? Yet that was just what they did win, as well as contests in many other sports, for a total of 33 golds to hang up in the Temple of Heavenly Peace.
To my mind Olympic Games are not a universal fest of sporting fitness at all, but actually rather unfair. There are only three ways in which any particular country can hope to excel. If it does not conform to one of these ways then it might as well keep its team at home and save itself a lot of money, as well as humiliation before the rest of the world when its athletes inevitably lose.
The first way is for that country to be an open, modern western democracy where all citizens are encouraged to develop their abilities and talents to the full without worrying about their origins in the class structure or the political correctness of their personal views (the United Kingdom still just about comes into this category but its position is no longer secure).
The second way is for the country to be a dictatorship. I suspect Fascist dictatorships were, in truth, the best at winning medals but nowadays we only have Communist dictatorships, or barely ex-Communist dictatorships. In either case, all the sporting resources the totalitarian state can summon up are devoted every four years single-mindedly to the cause of success at the Olympic Games. Hence the presence high up the medals table of not only China but also of Russia, Kazakhstan and Cuba. Cuba? Land of cigars and sugar? But yes, there it is with as many medals as the rest of Latin America put together.
The third way is the most interesting. In this category come pairs of countries which have the closest possible links, which indeed in the past may have formed a single nation. Look at the positions in the medals table, fourth and 11th respectively, of South and North Korea. It is extraordinary that the South, with less than half Britain’s population, and with again a rather puny oriental past, should be just behind us. What drives its athletes on is obviously not the support of a home crowd but the thought they must do better than the North. No doubt the same thought drives on the athletes of the North too, though they have slightly flopped. One would not want to be the head of the team when he gets home for an interview with Chairman Kim. But no doubt the Pyongyang papers all report: North Korea, four golds, Rest of World, er, that’s it.
It used to be just the same with East and West Germany. In the days when the medals table was dominated by the United States and the Soviet Union, the halves of divided Germany could together rival and sometimes exceed the totals of the big two. But that fact did not interest the Germans in the least: what they worried about was divided Germany apart, and which of the two halves would be the top half. Now they have lost this incentive, just look at united Germany – languishing in the table even behind the feckless Italians, who probably would not be in London at all without German bail-outs to pay for them.
Clearly at the Olympic Games a kind of sibling rivalry prevails, only at the national level. And sibling rivalry, though often the fiercest of all rivalries and capable of unpleasant psychological side-effects, yet may have the virtue of calling forth from the two siblings much higher achievement than they would ever have managed without it.
Team GB’s success in these couple of Olympic weeks has produced some frantic waving of the Union Flag, together with snide asides about a rebirth of British patriotism and consequent curtains for Scottish nationalism. Most of such talk has come from London rather than from Edinburgh or Glasgow, though in this very newspaper distinguished columnists have questioned whether in an independent Scotland athletes could be as fit as they are in the United Kingdom.
The argument from sibling rivalry is, I think, the complete answer to such a feeble suggestion. Does anybody doubt that, in the days long gone of Scotland-England football internationals, the very closeness to the Auld Enemy used to make the Scottish squad perform at and above its best, certainly far better than it has ever performed since. So it could be for Olympian Scots of the future, when today’s tally for Team GB might need to be divided between two nations. But there should be more to divide.
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Thursday 23 May 2013
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